Swords into Ploughshares: Sculpture by Jay Moss
On view from July 15–October 7, 2018
Text by Susan Chevlowe, Chief Curator and Museum Director
Over a period of several months in late 1943, Jay Moss’s combat engineer regiment traveled on landing craft from North Africa to the beachhead at Anzio, Italy, landing on January 22, 1944. It was the first time Moss, 20 years old at the time, saw combat. “We replaced infantry that had to go and rest,” he explained. “At night, particularly in Anzio, it was like the Fourth of July with all the bombs.”*
Although trained as combat engineers, the soldiers in the unit had to replace combat troops. “I did whatever they told me to do, because other GIs were doing it too. They led me to a hole. When a guy got out of it, I got into it. The front needed constant watching, so the [Germans] didn’t spring an attack.” After months in a stalemate at Anzio the unit pushed on, trading sandy and flooded foxholes for the mud and cold of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France on the border with Germany. Not all of Moss’s sculpture of the last four decades is a response to those wartime experiences, but many are and they have a particular resonance for today.
Moss and I spoke recently about what inspired him and he suggested how his work “can make people aware of the horror, how impossible it was.” Pointing out Peace Missile (2011), its gray projectile wrapped with a sinuous garland of plastic flowers, he explained: “I did that seven, eight years ago and now Kim Jong Un wants to drop missiles on us. So that’s appropriate to send him this one with the flowers around it.” The fear that existed for him long ago remains palpable today.
About GI Joe (2012), a tall and lanky figure in relief, made up of fragments and with a skull-like face, he said: “It’s from my memory of a soldier. That’s all. . . . It had a big influence on my life because I spent a lot of time in the army and I was in the hospital a lot. I was on Anzio . . . . I got into this hole with water up to here [he points to his calf] and I was sleeping on the parapet of it at night. I couldn’t sit down because it was full of water and the third day my feet swelled up and I got trench feet and I was hospitalized for two or three weeks at least.”
Another assemblage that looks like an artillery shell is titled Anzio (2003). Moss describes it as a “piece of plumbing” made from materials leftover from when he was a professional lamp designer. Inside he has collaged some mementos: “There’s a letter my mother sent me. And this is the Anzio beachhead. That was on each of our shoulders. This logo [a patch spelling out A–N–Z–I–O].” He described the other collage elements: “This is a German howitzer gun that was on a railroad track and we never could get it because it went into a tunnel and then it came out and shot at us and then went back in. . . . That’s Italian troop prisoners and this is occupation money that we were using in Italy. . . . That’s my brother [when we] met in Paris [at the end of the war].”
Moss’s unit arrived in Europe on August 15, 1944, for Operation Dragoon—the Allied invasion of southern France. Months later, not far from the front, in the forests of the Vosges Mountains, Moss built what were called corduroy roads—“that’s trees that they knock down to make a roadway so it’s very bumpy to the front. . . . And I was working on that road and on the way back the graves registration had dead GIs in the open back of a truck and they all had those knitted caps, which go underneath your helmet, you know, but they didn’t have the helmets. So I saw seven or eight caps and they were bouncing in the back and I was just working on building this road and they were coming in with dead [bodies]. It was one of the most traumatic things in my life really to see dead bodies—so that’s the essence of the front there. . . .my jaw dropped in horror.”
During those final months of the war, thousands of enemy soldiers were captured. That time is reflected in The Prisoner (1991): “It was just a block of wood. I wanted it to be as clumsy as I could make it—raw looking. You know a real bandana, they’re very bright and I put it on and it was so bright, it overpowered the wooden carving I made. So I took a plain piece of cloth and I drew a soft delicate bandana [design] so it didn’t dominate the head.” Those fine lines belie the meaning of the bandana and the prisoner’s fate. The base of the head is carved wood covered with sheet metal, which is soft and malleable, ready to be hammered or molded.
I asked Moss, “What attracted you to working in this way?”
“Well, in my work designing for manufacturers I went into many factories and saw what they had and this was Miller and Doing, a factory in Brooklyn that no longer exists. They used to do the marquee for the Paramount Theater . . . that’s a drop hammer stamping—it’s the same process and the metal may be a little harder, but they use this kind of metal to form [the letters].”
The top part of another work, War Collage (1980), is the Maginot Line—the defensive line on the border of France and Germany that predated World War II—and on the side is a Gothic arch symbolizing a church. The other metal elements are cannons. In another sculpture, For a Beautiful War (2001), formed with wood insulators, Moss suggests the irony of war. “That’s sarcastic—did you ever see a beautiful war?” he asks. And his Oscar for Torturers (2009): “That’s what a torturer deserves. He deserves to have a trophy like this. [The figure is manacled and wearing a hood.] That’s the kind of Oscar he deserves. That was for Cheney and Rumsfeld [key figures in the George W. Bush administration responsible for the war in Iraq]. And also for Guantanamo Bay. There’s still prisoners there.”
Stalag Theater (1980) references prisoners who saved their own lives by performing as musicians for their captors. An oblique reference to the Holocaust may be found in the numbers and suggestion of barbed wire. Toward the end of his two-and-half years in the army, Moss was based in Germany, where he met survivors from the Dachau and Buchenwald camps.
As for Swords into Ploughshares (2002), “that’s what I’d like to see them making,” he said. Moss is an artist not an activist, and his work is a personal demonstration that peace still may be possible.
*All quotations are from a personal conversation with the author on February 27, 2018, and from subsequent follow-up emails.
About the artist
Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1923, to immigrant parents, Isadore Moskowitz, a clothing maker and store owner born in Russia, and Josephine Goldsmith Moskowitz, who was born in Romania, Jay Moss attended the High School of Industrial Art (later the High School of Art and Design), where he studied graphic arts, three-dimensional design, display and studio drawing. The family first lived over the tailor shop and later moved to Flatbush and Greenpoint before settling in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Moss was drafted into the army in 1943 after working as a page at CBS, and trained as a combat engineer in Fort Belvoir, VA. His unit, the 36th Engineer Regiment, participated in key campaigns in Italy, France and Germany. He was discharged in October 1945. Back in New York, Moss attended the Art Students League for three-and-a-half years as a benefit of the GI Bill, studying under José de Creeft, Morris Kantor and M. Peter Piening. A mahogany head he carved while a student at the League was exhibited at Jacques Seligmann and Company in 1947. The Gallery’s contemporary art department supported the work of young artists, in particular returning veterans. Moss also received a sculpture prize at the Nassau County Art Association in the 1960s. He had a successful career as head of NBC television’s art department where he worked for 12 years and then was the owner-designer of a company that made decorative mirrors and wall pieces. After selling the company, he worked as a design consultant and lighting product designer. He also taught lighting product design at the Parsons School of Design and television graphic arts at the RCA Institute. All the while, he worked at his passion, sculpting in the basement studio of his family’s Long Island home and at their second home in Stockbridge, MA. Moss has worked both figuratively and abstractly, creating forms using a table saw and chiseling a variety of woods that he then assembles with other materials, including lead, metal and cloth.
Moss has had two previous solo exhibitions, at Manhattan College in 2014 and the Historic Wells Gallery in Lenox, MA, in 2001. In 2008 he and his wife, Sabina, who have two sons, moved to Riverdale, where Moss continues his artistic practice.
Works in the exhibition
All works have been lent by the artist unless otherwise specified. Dimensions are height x width.
Stalag Theatre, 1980
Sheet lead, wood, acrylic, 22 x 31 3/4 inches
War Collage, 1980
Sheet lead, wood, acrylic, 27 x 18 3/4 x 5 1/2 inches
Armored Vest, 1983
Wood, sheet lead, 37 x 20 x 9 inches
The Prisoner, 1991
Mahogany, sheet lead, cotton cloth, 33 1/4 x 12 ¾ x 8 ½ inches
Mine Canary, 1997
Sheet lead, wood, acrylic, metal, 28 x 15 ½ x 15 ½ inches
Lent by Eric Jacobson
For a Beautiful War, 2001
Pine wood, sheet lead, rotted wood insulators, acrylic, 36 x 15 x 11 inches
Swords Into Ploughshares, 2002
Sheet lead, wood, cord, 29 1/2 x 12 inches
Brass tubing, paper, sheet lead, 11 ¾ x 2 ¾ x 2 ¾ inches (open)
Oscar for Torturers, 2009
Sheet lead, wood, acrylic, fiber chord, 34 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches
Peace Missile, 2011
Wood, sheet lead, plastic, 28 x 11 inches
West Virginia Coal Miner, 2011
Wood, sheet lead, plastic, acrylic, 25 x 15 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches
GI Joe, 2012
Sheet lead, wood, 25 x 9 ½ inches
Tenement Family, 2012
Wood, sheet lead, acrylic, 31 1/4 x 17 3/4 x 3 ½ inches
This text originally appeared in the brochure that was produced in conjunction with the exhibition, Swords into Ploughshares: Sculpture by Jay Moss on view in the Pauline and William Goldfine Pavilion Lobby Gallery from July 15–October 7, 2018.
As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for all visitors, including residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Call 718.581.1596 for holiday hours or to schedule group tours, or for further information visit our website at RiverSpringHealth.org/art
Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.